When The Office gave in to the idea that these people could care for each other rather than just tolerate each other, the series went from being an amusing update of the U.K. Office to a living, breathing sitcom with an emotional core all its own. This transformation was in no small part thanks to the show’s first Christmas episode in season two, when Michael Scott yowled, “Yaaaaaaankee Swap!” and Jim’s deeply personal gift for Pam made it impossible for her to ignore his feelings. Almost every season since has built story arcs toward its Christmas episode, making it easy to anticipate especially exceptional jokes or, as best exemplified in that first Christmas outing, exceptional heart.
But even though episodes like “Benihana Christmas” and “Moroccan Christmas” quickly became series highlights, The Office has never really recreated the perfect blend of comedy and vulnerability of that first “Christmas Party.” It’s been an entertaining, but losing battle, and yet somehow the pressure to reproduce it has only intensified with time.
“Dwight Christmas” deals with this pressure in a couple of ways. First, the cold open doesn’t operate as a comedy sketch as it routinely has, but as a way to immediately establish that this year, Christmas will be a little bit different (to be read in the voice of a holiday movie trailer narrator). The entire office has forgotten the Christmas party. This would seem farfetched if the chair of the Party Planning Committee hadn’t just put a hit out on her coworker for sleeping with her husband—though to be fair, this is arguably the only thing that would keep Angela from color-coding an acceptable party menu weeks in advance. But since only Dwight, Angela, and a nervously overcompensating Oscar know why she dropped the ball, everyone else is shocked and appalled. There’s almost a riot when poor, unsuspecting Nellie suggests picking up “liquor and those mini cupcakes” to compensate for their loss. Such pedestrian supermarket fare may be acceptable for virtually any other office party in the country, but the Dunder Mifflin Christmas has swollen way, way past that point.
And lo, we meet Belsnickel.
As was inevitable, Dwight’s version of Christmas is a macabre affair complete with wishbone tearing, medicinal wine, and a version of Santa Claus that rewards the “admirable” with mousetraps and beats the “impish” with a switch. As was also inevitable, the only ones in the office who aren’t completely horrified are Jim and Pam, who have made it their business over the years to root out Dwight’s origin story. Pam correctly assumes that making Dwight’s upside-down Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas happen is the best present she could give her husband, resulting in a fun scene for Jenna Fischer where Pam persuades Phyllis to go along with it based solely on her enthusiastic tone. That’s pretty much it, though, since Jim indulges Dwight for about 10 minutes before he skips out for his first full day at his new sports job in Phila-whatever.
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This is where “Dwight Christmas” gets confusing. Dwight’s melancholy at Jim’s absence seems like it’s supposed to be a touching moment, one that should pick up where their excellent scene in “Work Bus” left off. But where that episode let Jim be the villain—and was more effective for acknowledging his more selfish tendencies—his transgression in “Dwight Christmas” is muddled. Is Dwight upset because Jim didn’t indulge him this time? Because contrary to all appearances, he enjoys Jim’s snarky commentary? Because it’s Christmas, dammit, and they will celebrate as a family come hell or high water? All of these scenarios could be true (as they have been in the past), but none of them get any room to breathe in this episode. The moment when Jim walks back into the office has all the appearances of being triumphant, but it felt more like a checkmark. Check, Jim’s back in the office for Christmas. Check, Dwight acts like a human and hugs Jim. Check, Jim and Pam share one last Christmas kiss. Never mind that he and Pam had already shared a nice moment by his waiting taxi where they acknowledged that their lives were about to change, because why move forward when you have an office Christmas party to re-crash? Jim’s journey to a new career has been frustrating this season, and this episode reinforced why: Despite all appearances, the show is unwilling to let him get in that waiting taxi.
Meanwhile, regional manager Andy Bernard is still at sea, and Erin is still the only one who cares, which indicates just how problematic the Nard Dog’s been this season. While Andy was at the center of Christmas last season, this Christmas finds him literally exiled from the action. His absence also leaves Erin free to flirt with New Jim in a plotline that feels like a leftover from seasons past. This isn’t to say that watching Pete (thank you Erin, for saving me a Google search for his name) recite Die Hard isn’t cute, or that Erin’s crestfallen face at Andy’s impossibly annoying email isn’t effective; it’s just that you could replace Pete with Jim, Erin with Pam, and Andy with Roy without changing any of the dialogue and be back in season two. It’s also hard to believe that Erin would let this major office holiday go by without joining in, or at least wearing a pair of novelty antlers.
Though “Dwight Christmas” tries to deflate expectations in the cold open by making the office scramble, it’s hard to get over the fact that the episode mostly feels like a speed bump on the way to greater things. Sure, it may be unfair to approach a Christmas episode with elevated expectations, but it’s inevitable, since we know The Office is capable of true greatness in this area. Jim might think this was the “perfect last Christmas party,” but, ultimately, it ranks as more impish than admirable.
- Darryl as the Drunk of Christmas Present may have been a Meredith circa “Moroccan Christmas” redux, but that second beat of the table cracking underneath him made me cackle every time (I watched it three times, and counting).
- Confession: I’ve also never seen Die Hard. When people find this out, Erin’s forced grin and panicky “I DON'T KNOW WHY I JUST HAVEN'T” is exactly what happens.
- Between Jim bungling Dwight’s Pennsylvania Dutch and Leslie Knope interrogating Diane on Parks And Recreation, the honorable house of Hufflepuff got almost as much play tonight as it did in seven Harry Potter books.
- Toby was in rare form tonight: “I would start at the beginning, but I think I need to go further back.” “Forget everything you knew about fingerprinting.” “Here’s the thing about moonlight: it’s not sunlight.” How could Nellie resist?
- Jim and Pam on Belsnickel: “My favorite part of Christmas.” “The authority. And the fear.”
- “I want Tropical Christmas.” “Topless Christmas!” “Tapas Swiss Miss!”